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How to Teach a Kid to Swim in the Ocean

No matter how strong a swimmer your child is in the pool, the ocean poses a different set of challenges.

For most kids, learning how to swim is hard enough in a swimming pool. So trying to teach them in murky ocean water, with waves crashing down and fish nibbling at their toes, can be nearly impossible ⏤ not to mention downright terrifying for them. But for families who spend a lot of time at the beach, the ocean is where their children will first navigate the water, blow bubbles, and learn to swim. And while they may be overwhelmed at first, the benefits of learning to freestyle or tread water in the ocean rather than a pool are many.

“Swimming in the ocean creates stronger swimmers, because it requires more physical ability and mental awareness,” says Daniel Dozier, a swimming coach at UNC Asheville who has also worked ocean rescue on North Carolina’s Wrightsville Beach. “Which is why getting a child comfortable with the ocean at an early age is a huge deal.” To do that, Fatherly asked Dozier for some of his tips to help parents teach their kids how to swim in the sea.

Navigate the Waves

If you’ve ever put your child in the pool and watched them get agitated by an unwelcome splash, then you know the ocean’s waves are going to appear daunting. Dozier recommends holding their hand and slowly walking in, talking to them about the waves while encouraging them to stay calm. “Start by standing knee deep in the water before beginning to wade in the waves,” he says. “Then gradually keep walking forward in small chunks at a time, eventually moving past the breakers if the parent or teacher is a strong enough swimmer and/or you can still stand.” Help your child learn to notice an approaching wave and recognize which ones are big and which are more manageable. “Ocean safety should always be a priority,” he says, “And early education is a great way to start.” Most importantly, you want the child to get comfortable with the waves.

Build the Swimming Skills

Even if your child is a good swimmer in the pool, they may need a refresher in the ocean. Dark water, waves, and currents are added variables they may not be familiar with. Not only that, but sand feels different than the bottom of a pool, and saltwater tastes nothing like chlorine. Don’t assume that just because your child confidently zooms around the shallow end that they’ll swim as strongly in the ocean.

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Assuming the ocean waters are calm, however, you can treat it much like a pool when it comes to teaching swimming basics. The big difference, obviously, is that there won’t be steps, ladders, or sides for your child to hold on to while you practice ⏤ you’re their rock in the ocean. After finding a water depth that’s comfortable for both you and your child, Dozier recommends teaching your child how to float and then how to kick. From there, you can move onto the freestyle stroke and treading water.

Swimming may feel easier to the child in the ocean, as the buoyant salt water holds them higher than if they were in a pool. A child who was struggling to float in a pool may stay horizontal for longer in the ocean. This will most certainly help build confidence. Similarly, if you can make it out past the breaking waves, you’re in a great place to practice treading water. Proceed just as you would in the pool ⏤ the only difference is that the swell will pick you and your child up and down as your child works to stay vertical.

One note to keep in mind: While back floating is still a very useful survival skill, backstroke serves a less practical purpose in the ocean. Without walls or lane lines to keep swimmers headed in the right direction, swimming backstroke in any purposeful direction could prove nearly impossible in the ocean.

Don’t Forget About the Currents

Wildlife, water temperature, and currents are all concerns for parents headed to the ocean with children. Always be cautious, follow directions posted on signs, listen to lifeguards, and pay attention to notices about water quality and water conditions. Ultimately though, currents should be a parent’s biggest safety focus, says Dozier, and it’s important to educate your children about both longshore and rip currents.

The longshore current is the one that runs parallel to the shore and steadily pushes your child further down the beach as they play or swim. It’s important to teach kids who are swimming in the ocean to periodically look up and identify the spot where they began ⏤ be it a distinctive house, your brightly colored beach umbrella, or a lifeguard stand. If they’re too far down, they should get out of the water and walk back up the beach. In fact, it’s better to recommend that they start their swim further up current from where you’re camped out. That way the current will push them towards, rather than immediately away from, you.

A rip current, meanwhile, is a narrow current that moves quickly away from the shore. It forms when waves break perpendicular to the beach, rather than at an angle, and they’re most prevalent around permanent structures like piers and jetties. You can sometimes spot a rip current by noticing both the space between incoming waves and the discolored water near the shore. Still, it’s safer to check the beach forecast and notice if any flags are raised at the lifeguard stand to warn swimmers of dangerous beach conditions. Rip currents can be avoided but should you or your child get caught in one, swim parallel to shore until you’re out of it, rather than attempt to fight it by swimming directly back to the beach. This should be one of the first lessons you teach your child before getting in the water.

When it comes to taking kids to the ocean, Dozier’s ultimate safety advice is this: “Make sure the water conditions are safe enough for the child. Think about the waves, how fast the water is moving, spot rip currents, get in to check water depths as it relates to distance from shore, and be aware if the tide is changing from low to high or high to low.”

As Always, Keep Playing

Just as in the swimming pool, all of the fun things kids love to do in the ocean are helping them become stronger swimmers, says Dozier ⏤ from body surfing, to boogie boarding, to playing catch in the waves. It’s all about building your child’s confidence through exposure to different conditions and spending as much time as possible in the water. No matter how comfortable they get though, always keep your eyes on your child. Even in a guarded area, the lifeguards cannot see it all!

Cathleen Pruden is a four-time All-American swimmer at Mount Holyoke College and the Assistant Swim Coach at Bowdoin College. She spent five years as the Head Coach of a summer league swim team for children ages 4- to 18-year-olds and has taught over 600 private swim lessons to children and adults of all ages.